Going Through the Motions
Text: Matt. 6:1-6, 16-21
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Going through the motions. We’ve all done it. In fact, I’d even wager that we’ve gotten even better at it in the last couple years. Attending Zoom meetings with a nice shirt or blouse on above the desk, but shorts or pajama pants on beneath it. Phoning it in while working remotely. Allowing our attention to be divided between countless devices and conversations. So-called multitasking, which more often than not just means doing one thing automatically without thinking while the other task is handled with slightly more attention.
That’s the hazard of doing anything more than once. Repetition is the mother of learning, but once we’ve learned a thing, it becomes easier and easier to simply go through it mechanically. And, as we are often reluctant to admit, this even extends to our spiritual life. Our prayers, our devotions, and yes, even our time in the divine service, such as right now, we struggle to keep focused, to not just go through the motions. Give yourself an honesty check right now. As we spoke the confession together at the beginning of the service, how much of it were you really zeroed in on what we were saying? How often do you make it through the Lord’s Prayer and then realize you were thinking about something else the whole time? How many times have you asked, “Did we pray yet?” before starting a meal? For those reading this at home, how many browser tabs do you have open? What else is in front of you right now?
We go through the motions. We all do it. And that’s why we need something to snap us out of it. We need something wake us back up. We need a spark to get us thinking about what we’re doing again. And that’s what Ash Wednesday is for. The Church, in her wisdom, has given us a cycle to follow. Yes, it repeats, with all the hazards of repeating things, but it also has distinct seasons that renew our senses and reawaken our minds to some facet of our life of faith together. So we come to Ash Wednesday tonight, with all its distinctive differences, getting us to think—to actively think and ponder and consider—a very important aspect of our lives in Christ: repentance. We have the once-a-year practice of ashes placed on our heads, marks of repentance right on the seat of our thinking. We hear the announcement at the beginning of the service that we’re starting a journey that takes us to Jesus’ cross and empty tomb. Our eyes are met with different paraments on the altar, crosses are veiled from our sight, more somber chords from the organ reach out to our ears to get us to think about the weightiness of what we’re saying, the depth of our need. All these things snap us out of our automatic thought, rekindling an old fire in our hearts and minds.
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord, “return to me with all your heart, not divided attention, not split affections, but with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning. Rend your hearts and not your garments.” Don’t simply go through the outward motion of humbling yourself, mouthing the words. Don’t just tear your garments in an outward show. Rend your hearts. Let them be broken by the weight of what you owe your God. Don’t fall prey to the outward repentance of the hypocrites that Jesus warns us about tonight: wearing the right facial expressions, announcing your deeds and charity, putting on a show of what a good Christian you are in church or on Facebook or in cliched conversation. Don’t practice your righteousness to be seen by others. For, as Jesus reminds us, “your Father sees in secret.”
Your God knows the secrets of your heart—the grudges, the anger, the fear, the resentment, the laziness and indifference. He knows the times you’ve coveted what someone else has. He’s aware of the moments you thought yourself more worthy of His love and grace and forgiveness than someone else, especially that sinner. So don’t think that you can go through the motions as you ask Him for forgiveness. It’s not just a formality. You’re not OK—and that’s OK to admit. It’s what God wants you to admit.
Why? Why this focus on repentance and confessing what we’ve done against our God? Ash Wednesday and this season of Lent do not exist just so you can wallow in a shallow trough of worry and self-loathing. We prayed in the collect tonight that God despises nothing that He’s made, so you ought not either. Focusing on repentance isn’t about just manufacturing some bad feelings so that then we can manufacture some good feelings as an antidote. So why repentance? Because repentance gets us talking to God again honestly. It reminds us that God isn’t reaching out to us because of how bright and shiny we are, or how loudly we trumpet our deeds, or because we reposted something or forwarded a chain email to ten people. He isn’t impressed with prayers on the street corners, physical or digital, seen by the masses. Repentance reminds us of that. Repentance takes us back to the beginning of our relationship with God. He comes to us not because of what we’ve done right or who we are, but because of who He is. He comes to us because of His grace, His love. Repentance takes us back to that simple fact: that our Father wants to come to us only in forgiveness, only in mercy. Repentance gets us to reframe our conversations with Him, our prayers. It gets us a fresh start on the relationship, again, so that we can start things where He does—with His grace, with His cross, with His sacrifice to save us.
The prophet Joel got to see this fresh start and report it to God’s people, including us. “Then the Lord became jealous for His land and had pity on His people. The Lord answered and said to His people, ‘Behold, I am sending to you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied.” Grain, for bread, to strengthen our hearts and weak hands. Wine, to gladden our hearts. Oil, to anoint us and make our faces shine with His light again. Of course, these things make up the ways He comes to us in the divine service: bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper, anointing at Baptism. And if we just look up, we see it coming from Him. We see His grace, His forgiveness, carried through such things, even now, even here, waiting to capture our hearts and thoughts.
Repentance gets us to look up. Yes, we look at ourselves, and that sight tells us how much we need a Savior. But repentance will always lead us to look back up at our salvation, at the nail-pierced hand that’s already taken hold of us, that’s already sending those gifts of peace and mercy. And so Ash Wednesday gets us to look beyond, to see further than the mere going-through-of-the-motions. It gets us to see our Savior. It gets us to see what’s really at stake—eternity. When we see that, we recognize what’s really going on here. This is no mere religious recital. This isn’t some play acted out. This isn’t about the nitpicky things we would otherwise focus on—tunes, personalities, color choices, moods. This is all about Jesus. It’s about what He’s done for us. It’s about what He’s doing for us right here, right now.
So we repent. We notice what’s different and why. We refocus, we recalibrate, we renew. We turn our eyes back to Jesus, for it’s there and only there that we see eternal life and the depths of God’s love for us. In the name of Jesus, our Savior, Amen.